“I sang the National Anthem just once before, for a Dodgers game four years ago. I learned right away that I needed to have my in-ears in,” 23-year-old singer MAX tells us in his Barclays Center dressing room after performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” (perfectly in key this time) in front of an arena filled mostly with fans of the opposing San Antonio Spurs. “This is my first NBA game!” he admits excitedly before joking that the Brooklyn Nets have sealed his loyalty after putting him courtside for the game.
MAX, born Max Schneider in Hells Kitchen, New York City, is in the middle of a transformative moment as he navigates his career away from the tween TV launching pad he sprang from and moves into the recording studios of hit makers like Pete Wentz and Pharrell. The son of two lawyers (“artistic lawyers,” he qualifies), MAX cut his performing chops in Woodstock, NY, where the family had a weekend home, nabbing his very first role as “King of the Oompa Loompas” in a local youth theater’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fast forward a few years and MAX was understudying alongside then-unknown Ariana Grande in the Broadway production of 13 before landing an ad campaign for Dolce & Gabbana with none other than Madonna herself.
“I was her son in the campaign, but all of the press was like, ‘Who is her new fetus boyfriend?'” he recalls (he was 17 at the time). His experience with Madge was nothing but positive by his account, as he describes her turning what was supposed to be just one shot with her into a full day’s work, and how she was very “huggy.” Soon after, he started experimenting with his own music recording, making YouTube videos, writing songs and starring in projects for Nickelodeon (Rags, How To Rock) and the Disney Channel (Shake It Up). When he reached out to Fall Out Boy about his plans to cover their song “Young Volcanoes,” Pete Wentz agreed to appear in the video himself. Thus began a relationship between the two that culminated in Wentz’s DCD2 Records releasing MAX’s latest EP Wrong in December. “Pete was down,” MAX shrugs to sum it up. The EP features MAX’s first original viral hit, the song “Gibberish” featuring rapper Hoodie Allen.
What happened next was even more fortuitous: Model/fashion designer Helen Lasichanh saw a “Blurred Lines” cover that MAX posted on YouTube and, impressed, showed it to her husband Pharrell Williams. As MAX tells it, Lasichanh told Pharrell, “‘Yo! You should check out this kid!’ And he was like, ‘Aight!'” MAX was then invited to spend several days in the studio with Pharrell while the producer was simultaneously working with Snoop Dogg. “I got to see Stevie Wonder in the booth recording for Snoop Dogg’s record,” MAX marvels. “It was a crazy experience.” He and Pharrell are now in the middle of putting together what will be MAX’s debut album, a process he describes as extremely collaborative, with both artists bringing ideas to each other.
“Pharrell is so present. It’s really amazing,” MAX says. “I love that when he’s talking to you, nothing else in the world exists. Just realizing that we’re all constantly on our phones, looking around at who else is in the room…With him, it doesn’t matter who else is in the room.”
In addition to his national tour with R5 kicking off in February, MAX is part of the awards season contender Love & Mercy, a biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, in which he plays musician Van Dyke Parks. “Paul Dano is the most insane actor,” he remarks (Dano plays a young Wilson in the film.) Of the legendary Beach Boy himself MAX says, “I’ve been in his presence a few times and I don’t really know if you meet Brian Wilson. You hang with him a few times and then you feel like you’ve met him, because he’s very closed off in that way.” Of Wilson’s troubling childhood MAX notes that “it’s really cool to see in the story how his father treated him — it’s heartbreaking but it also shows how sometimes things happen that push these people over the edge into the place where they become this legendary sphere of creativity.”
When asked if his relationship with his own father was at all troubling, he laughs.
“No, he’s the best. He’s the little Jewish man in the audience dancing around, clapping…He’s constantly sending me ideas and I’m like, ‘Thanks, Dad.’ That’s all I can do.”